“I have the power!” is a quote not brought up often enough at the Global Leadership Summit or in the Harvard Business Review.
It seems to me the definitive quote on power relations considered through a Marxist, feminist, post-colonial or Christian lens.
It was, of course, spoken by He-Man in the classic 80s cartoon.
And the image of the undeniably male, unfeasibly muscle-bound, intensely Caucasian, Lego-haired hero being struck by lightning and somehow managing to still look smug and triumphant is a great place to start in any serious discussion of power. Perhaps the only place.
Stay with me.
Power in the hands of unmerited privilege (hereditary privilege in the case of Prince Adam, whose alter-ego is He-Man) is something we can all agree is probably a bad thing.
The disproportionate overrepresentation of Anglo-Saxon and male decision makers in the halls of power like government, corporations and the church must, at this point, be a problem most of us want to address, too.
After all, regardless of your ideological bent, limiting the pool from which we draw our leaders to something so narrow must consequently feel shallow, no?
Power dispersed through diversity just makes good efficient sense if you believe it can be exercised well.
Of course, you may not. Anarchists of various stripes (including some emerging churchpersons, very serious nonconformists and prophetic progressives) have expressed severe misgivings about power itself.
Indeed, Justin Welby, not an anarchist of any stripe I think, says in a recent interview with BMS World Mission that power has a tendency to corrode, if not corrupt.
And there are other voices within the church, getting louder as our political and corporate leaders become more and more appalling, who say that the very exercise of power is unrighteous. Whether we believe them or not has significant implications for mission and for the body of Christ generally.
After all, can we really say that we are partnering as equals with the Majority World Church if we have the power to pull tight the purse strings?
I would argue yes, as almost every blessing or privilege carries with it the responsibility to do all we can to use it wisely. But the temptation to control, for the best reasons, will always be strong for those in (or with, or exercising) power.
One way we can perhaps avoid the pitfalls of power is transparency and openness to having our privilege and its blind spots and assumptions called out and examined.
The humility to recognize that inherent in our relationships we may have dominative power just by virtue of having strength. And hiding it, like Prince Adam hid his He-Man identity, is not only disingenuous, but actually dangerous.
But so is the assumption that divesting ourselves of any and all power is always heroic. Sometimes it is. And sometimes it is running away from a responsibility and a duty.
I would personally rather have leaders exercise power to coerce taxation out of citizens so that our National Health Service continues to alleviate suffering. You might enjoy the security that comes from the exercise of policing or military power.
We must not kid ourselves that a withdrawal from power leaves an egalitarian utopia.
Remove the government from Somalia and the warlords rush in. Remove government regulation and banks run amok. Leave things as they are, and the Northern and Western Church will continue to dominate the Global South.
Paradoxically, it takes the power of leadership and institutions with money and influence to tip that balance at anything more than a glacial pace.
So, in the spirit of the little “Hey kids…” He-Man homily at the end of every episode of Masters of the Universe (the more you think of it, the more it just screams hegemony, right?), can we commit to a new way of power?
Can we forge a new approach to dealing with those over whom we have influence or control, where we use our power for “their” interests rather than our own?
If that is our aim, then we need to be proactive and serious in our attempts to understand our own biases and blind spots. And we need to exercise our power in a way that always makes space to give (or lend) some of it to others who are not like us.
Power is at its most useful, perhaps, when it is following and learning from others rather than trying to lead and teach them. But that involves humility. And humility is almost always painful at its start, if it is real.
I’m personally not naturally gifted at this (the homilies or the humility). But, then, I was always more of a Skeletor man myself.
Jonathan Langley is Head of Creative Content at BMS World Mission and editor of Missions Catalyst magazine.